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From Babel to Pentecost: Proclamation, Translation, and the Risk of the Spirit


Moreover, as Derrida reminds us, texts summon forth both several different translations and also several different interpretations. To be sure, even the sacred texts of Scripture, as written texts, may actually demand that we affirm the tensions inherent in multiple and varied inter- and intralingual translations. Yet, what if those tensions were not textual problems needing solutions but were powerful indicators of the divine riches of Scripture? Perhaps the revelatory dynamic of God’s written Word depends upon just such ambiguities and tensions; that is, perhaps the Spirit’s inspiration and illumination truly depend upon the inexhaustibility of discontinuous readings, of textual differences actually woven into the warp and woof of biblical language. For example, consider the Apostle Paul’s great Christ hymn in Philippians, where he imagines the Incarnation as a process of kenosis, of divine “emptying,” where­by Jesus takes on the form of flesh so that he might offer himself as a sacrifice for salvation. By relinquishing (emptying) his equality with the Father, Jesus humbles himself and becomes a servant for the purpose of redeeming us from our sin through his death on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). In Colossians, however, Paul states that the Incarnation results from a process of plerosis, of Christ as the “fullness” of God existing in bodily form. Incarnation results from God’s glory being fully enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Now which is it? Is Incarnation the result of kenosis, of emptying, sacrificing, and relinquishing, or is it the result of plerosis, of fullness, completion, and the “saturated phenomenon” of divine presence?33 A good Derridean postmodern answer to this question might be, “Yes!” We must interpret the miracle of Christ’s Incarnation by using several symbols, even apparently conflicting ones, since the reality of that redemptive event does not lend itself to the similarity and singularity of just one “translation.” The Scriptures themselves, therefore, may exploit textual tensions and difference in order to reveal something of the wonders of God’s salvation, wonders that cannot be totally unveiled through absolute knowledge.

So what does the tension between revealing and re-veiling, between the privation in translation and the plurality in hermeneutics, actually mean for Christian proclamation? I believe it means that we must maintain what T. S. Eliot calls the “wisdom of humility” and not be arrogant enough to think that we can so fuse our re-wording of God’s Word to God’s Word itself that we confuse the two and fail to remain open to the Spirit’s correction and conviction.34 Derrida and Caputo have admonished us about becoming too self-assured when speaking words about God, but that admonishment may become even more critical when we claim to be communicating the Word of God or confessing that we have received a Word from God. How can I as a sinful, finite human being have the temerity to put myself forth in public as an Amos speaking for the Lord or as a John the Baptist calling others to Christ?35 Think of the audacity it takes for me to claim to be proclaiming the Word of God, to contend that the Spirit has inspired me to stand as the proxy of God with the authority to voice God’s thoughts. Think also of the intellectual difficulties associated with such a contention. When I seek to communicate the gospel verbally, I do know that what will proceed out of my mouth will be my words, my talk about God predicated upon my own personal interpretations; however, I do not know conclusively whether my words will mediate God’s Word, whether I will genuinely translate what the Spirit wishes to communicate through me.36 My proclamation may only be telling the audience what I want them to hear, not necessarily what God wants them to hear.

Still, does the postmodern emphasis on hermeneutical difference and deferral not threaten to deny the courage of knowing God’s mercies, the stability of resting on God’s promises, and the comfort of the surety of God’s redemption? Does postmodern thought not threaten to exile us to a desert of relativism and meaninglessness? Indeed, it does. On the one hand, the postmodern reminder that uncertainty and risk haunt every attempt at translation and interpretation may undoubtedly provoke the unsettling fear of relativism, especially when those attempts characterize the proclamation of Christ’s gospel. Uncertainty and risk may well disrupt any absolute conviction that we know God’s will, that we comprehend God’s directions, and that we can boldly speak God’s revelation. On the other hand, however, postmodern thought may encourage a salutary hermeneutical humility by reminding us that it is impossible for any of us to know absolutely that our talk about God is God’s talk about God, since we can never rise above the mediating limitations of our language, our culture, or our ideological traditions in order to hear the unfiltered, pure voice of the Deity.37 Subsequently, we validate our claims to proclaim the Word of God only through faith and hope, for we can only speak by believing that God has spoken to us and only proclaim by hoping that we have not been deceived by others or have not deceived ourselves.38 Ironically, the humility instilled by postmodern theories calls us to recommit ourselves in faith and hope to the Spirit of God.39 We cannot simply assume that we know the mind of God but must trust that the Holy Spirit will give us utterance as on the Day of Pentecost and will enable our language to mediate proper knowledge of God and of God’s will. Conceivably, therefore, postmodern hermeneutical humility may well encourage us to speak for God and to God only with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).40


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Category: Ministry, Summer 2007

About the Author: B. Keith Putt, Ph.D. (Rice University), is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has published several articles addressing issues relating philosophy of religion to certain post-secular theories of language and interpretation, specifically the radical hermeneutics of John D. Caputo. He has not only a professional, academic interest in postmodern thought, but also an interest in the ecclesiological implications that post-secular culture may have on understanding the Kingdom of God in the 21st century. His own personal Christian faith reflects a non-charismatic Baptist confessional tradition. Samford faculty page

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